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Published: Sunday, 6/15/2003

The lonely life of an animal rights activist in the Midwest

ROYAL OAK, Mich. - Gary Yourofsky likes to call himself the “most radical animal rights activist in the Midwest.” It is hard to disagree. He regards slaughterhouses and factory farms as the equivalent of Nazi death camps.

He thinks zoos and aquaria are evil penitentiaries for innocent creatures who have done no wrong. Pet shops are slave markets. Restaurants serving meat are an atrocity. He passionately believes that animal research is not only immoral, but totally useless when it comes to human beings.

And he is convinced that meat-eaters are slowly poisoning themselves. “Aren't humans amazing animals? They kill all kinds of wildlife by the millions, and then turn around and terrorize domestic animals by the billions,” this muscular 32-year-old intones to college, high school, and elementary school classrooms all over the nation, voice rising and falling with messianic zeal.

Nobody who meets him ever forgets him. Completely bald, he has pale white skin, round glasses, piercing blue eyes, and a giant tattoo of himself, wearing a mask and holding a rabbit, covering most of his right forearm. Praesto et persto, it says in Latin.

“It means, I stand in front, and I stand firm,” he explains.

That he does. For years, he's grabbed headlines by chaining himself to cars blocking the entrances to circuses, leading demonstrations against furriers, and other “outrageous acts of compassion.” He did hard time in Canada a few years ago after “liberating” 1,542 mink from an Ontario fur farm.

For years, he cheerfully predicted his own assassination. But things have changed. Mr. Yourofsky has given up overt action and is devoting himself to the lecture circuit, speaking mainly in college classrooms across the country.

That doesn't mean he has mellowed.

What he has decided to do instead is spend his life promoting veganism. “The average person eats 3,000 land animals in their lifetime. Every time I make a convert, I save that many animals,” he said. And he does seem to be developing a following. This year, he's given something like 76 talks in 17 states.

That has led, he says, to a brisk demand for the basic version of his speech, “From Liberator to Educator” which he sells on CD, DVD, and VHS for $10. The video isn't for the faint of stomach; it is interspersed with scenes of animal atrocities in slaughterhouses, circuses, and research facilities.

But he is, nearly everyone agrees, a powerful speaker. If his style is a bit closer to Joseph Goebbels than Winston Churchill, still, he generates nearly as much fan mail from professors as students. “Your presentation was an intense emotional experience both for my students and for me personally,” Jennifer Keys, a sociology professor at Kenyon College, wrote after he appeared there this winter.

His own consciousness was raised a bit, he admitted, when he spoke at a high school in St Marys, Ohio, and managed to have a civilized conversation with a teen whose family were ... pig farmers.

It did not begin well - Gary started by screaming at the top of his lungs, “Why do you hate animals?” But after awhile they shook hands. “I remember thinking that, here I am with Greg the pig farmer, and I don't want anything bad to happen to this guy.” Once, he had been in favor of killing such “vivisectionists.”

“But I realized I had my epiphany, and I no longer would support that.” He doesn't know, however, what he would do if he saw Greg trying to kill a pig.

What he does intend to do is go on hitting the road, trying to make more converts to a vegetarian diet. It is a lonely life. For a brief time, he was on staff of PETA, People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but he found that too confining. So now he is just on retainer - PETA pays him $150 a speech, meaning he makes less than $25,000 a year.

His only home is a spare couch in his retired father's suburban Detroit home. His only immediate family is a 15-year-old shepherd named Rex, who is too elderly to travel much these days. He's had girlfriends, but nothing permanent.

“I'm still looking for my vegan princess,” he says, devouring cantaloupe, getting ready to take off for a lecture series in Florida.

“But I can't seem to find her.”

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